“Let’s everyone take a moment to look at this piece, side to side, top to bottom.”
It’s February, and I’m sitting on the floor of the Yale University Art Gallery with my daughter, Margo, and other third-grade students from her class at New Haven’s Worthington Hooker School. Vanessa Lamers, our gallery teacher, stands beside a large ceremonial mask from the Congo.
“Let’s see what we’re noticing,” says Vanessa. “You guys might have noticed we’re in a mask section.”
One by one, the students raise their hands.
“When I look at the eyes,” says Jayden, “I see feathers on the eyebrows.”
“Great noticing,” Vanessa says. “The eyelashes on this mask are really long. They’re kind of feathery.”
“It looks like a really old man,” says Andrei.
“What do you see that makes you think it looks like a really old man?” Vanessa asks.
“His hair is almost white like an old man. His beard looks really long.”
“He looks like he’s blowing something because his cheeks are puffed up and his mouth is like this,” says Margo, mirroring the mask.
“Maybe he’s making a sound,” Vanessa suggests. “Can you make that sound?”
“Whooooooooooo,” we all say.
This is my second trip to the Yale University Art Gallery with Margo’s class. The first trip was so captivating I had to return for the second. This time, I’ve brought my tape recorder.
“It looks like his hair was made out of grass, or straw,” says Sadie, looking up at the mask.
“It looks like his face is made out of wood,” adds Andrei.
“Now we’re looking at the materials the artist used to put this together,” says Vanessa.
All New Haven public school third-graders visit either the Yale University Art Gallery or the Yale Center for British Art as part of the district’s Comprehensive Arts Program, which is designed to meet state curriculum standards. Trips to the Yale University Art Gallery have distinct themes: “The Art of Looking” and “Writing About Art.”
On our first trip, last December, we started with Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café. Guided by the gallery teacher’s questions, the students noticed color, shape, line, texture, form, light, and shadow. They noticed details, like the time on the clock in the café. Viewing van Gogh’s work and three others — including an African mask we tried to recreate using felt shapes — we never interpreted. We just noticed.
Noticing isn’t a third-grade exercise. It’s the fundamental building block of the gallery’s education program.
“It is the vocabulary for everything,” says Jessica Sack, the gallery’s Jan and Frederick Mayer Associate Curator for Public Education. “You can use these basic ideas with any piece of art at any age.
“Our method is inquiry-based,” Sack continues. “We ask open-ended questions. If students see it, it’s not wrong, because they see it.”
The gallery hosts students of all ages, from kindergarten through high school.
“As they get older, their vocabulary and ideas are more complex,” notes Sack, “so we are able to engage in more complex conversations.”
We’ve left the Congolese mask now, having learned from Vanessa its role in rites of passage in which young people become adults. Now we’re upstairs, looking at Edward Hopper’s 1957 painting Western Motel.
“There’s obviously a story going on here,” says Vanessa, shifting gears. “Sometimes in a story we have characters, like a mask. Sometimes we have plot, which is the meat of the story. Sometimes we have setting. What are we noticing?”
“I see, out of the window, a desert,” says Jayden. “And I see a street with sand on it, and I see a piece of a car.”
“She looks lonely,” Sadie says.
“What do you see that makes you think she’s lonely?”
“Well, it’s really dark in the room, and she’s all alone. And by her expression, she doesn’t look very happy.”
“It’s interesting that you say it’s dark in the room,” Vanessa says. “Even though it’s bright and sunny outside, she has these shadows on her body.”
The students weave together clues, suggesting pieces of a story. They theorize about time and place. They use their knowledge of the world to make sense of what they see. Vanessa talks about how Hopper is known for his use of light and shadow.
“I love how you’ve picked apart this painting and found the story,” she says. “We have this character and we’re trying to fill in the plot. Is she coming? Is she going?”
In exchanges like these, Sack’s team is developing future gallery-goers. There are rules in the gallery — no running, no touching the art — but the freedom to observe and explore is paramount.
As Sack puts it, “We want the museum to be seen by school kids as a place they want to be.”
In 2011, more than 7,500 student visitors in grades K-12 walked through the doors of the Yale University Art Gallery. Students from arts magnet schools – such as the Betsy Ross Arts and Magnet High School and the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School – may visit the museum 60 or 70 times over the course of their school careers.
“We know them by name, and we know their parents, too,” says Sack.
The gallery also offers a monthly Teacher Leadership Program for educators to connect with art and think about curriculum development.
Our group has left Hopper’s Western Motel. We’re sitting in front of Edwin Austen Abbey’s 1897 painting The Play Scene in “Hamlet” (Act III, Scene 2).
“I see there’s a king and a queen and they’re both dressed in red,” says William. “The lady dressed in pink is maybe a princess. The guy in the corner with the checked hat, I think he’s a jester and he’s really angry.”
“The princess,” says Margo, “or the lady, she’s holding the purple guy’s hand, but she’s not really focused on that. She’s staring into space. She’s daydreaming.”
Like most 8- and 9-year-olds, the students are no strangers to kings, queens, princesses, princes, and conflict as depicted in the dark colors and fiery background in Abbey’s painting. After a lot more noticing and some guesswork about the plot, Vanessa explains what’s going on.
“This,” she points, “is Hamlet’s mom realizing that she married this really bad guy who had the king poisoned.”
Who is Vanessa Lamers anyway? Like all gallery teachers, she’s a graduate student at Yale. She is pursuing a joint degree in public health and forestry and environmental studies. After our tour, I talked with Vanessa and two other gallery teachers, Daniel Meyers (a graduate student at the Yale Divinity School) and Najwa Mayer (a Ph.D. candidate in American studies).
Multidisciplinary gallery teachers are drawn from across the university. They have one thing in common: teaching experience. They were hired for their ability to work with school children, not for their knowledge of art. A separate group, undergraduate “gallery guides,” researches and leads tours for the Yale community and general public. Both groups receive extensive, ongoing training from Sack and her staff.
“We each focus on different things and different pieces because of our backgrounds,” says Vanessa of the gallery teachers. “We have our own interpretations and pull out different symbols. You could attend the same tour twice with two different gallery teachers and have two very different experiences.”
Working with older students and adults, Vanessa, Najwa, and Daniel say they love teaching with nontraditional pieces that open up conversations about the nature of art — such as Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Ankle, or Marcel Duchamp’s Shovel – an everyday snow shovel suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. Gallery teachers sometimes pursue their own special projects, often collaboratively. Vanessa started a group called the Art of Public Health and notes that art can be especially useful as a tool for talking about “taboo subjects.”
Our group’s final stop: Dinner Date by the artist Marisol, a mixed-media sculpture depicting two disembodied women sitting at a table. Vanessa pulls out writing boards, paper, and pencils.
“Write a letter to your parents or friends telling them what it was like to be at this dinner,” she says.
It’s a surreal piece, the most bizarre yet. The students squirm and squeal. Then they start writing. A hush fills the gallery. After a while, Vanessa calls on them to share. With these letters they unite their looking skills with the search for narrative, forming their own personal interpretations of the work.
The Yale University Art Gallery is now completing a massive renovation. In December 2012, the new buildings will open with multiple galleries and endless possibilities for learning. Included in the addition will be the Nolen Center for Art and Education, which will house a library for visitors.
“We’re busy now,” says Jessica Sack, “but we look forward to being super busy when the new museum opens.”
The third-graders walk toward the freight elevators, listening to their classmates read Dinner Date letters as they go. Time to climb aboard the school bus. It’s been a great hour at the Yale University Art Gallery. I can’t wait to return.
A very special thanks to the students of Room 3A at the Worthington Hooker School and their teacher, Ms. Leah Gillooly.
For Parents and Guardians
Visit the Yale University Art Gallery and explore art with your children. It’s easy, free, and fun! The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday.
The Teacher Leadership Program meets at the gallery on the first Thursday of every month, from 4-6 p.m. No registration is required.
For information and resources, visit artgallery.yale.edu or call (203) 432-0600.